Legal Services of Eastern Missouri said illegal evictions are a huge problem in the city of St. Louis.
Legal Services of Eastern Missouri is an independent, non-profit organization that provides legal assistance for low-income residents and the elderly in eastern Missouri. A staff attorney for the organization, Robert Swearingen, said illegal evictions are leaving hundreds of people homeless in the area every year.
“Their medicines, everything they own is inside the house and that creates a huge safety issue for the tenant and sometimes the tenant wants to get back in and the landlords will violently oppose that,” he said.
Swearingen said his office is doing its best to address the issue.
“This has been a huge problem," he said. "For the last few years’ legal services of eastern Missouri has been making this a priority and we can hardly keep up with the cases.”
Illegal lockouts have become such a concern in the region that alderman Terry Kennedy has proposed Board Bill 87. It would allow police to stop illegal evictions as they are taking place.
Right now, illegal evictions are a civil matter in Missouri. If a person wants to have access to their belongings after they are illegally locked out of their home, they would have to take up the issue in court, which could be very difficult for them financially, in some cases.
Swearingen said their work clothes, medicines, the toys for their kids could all remained locked up as they try and search for a place to live.
Rhonda Tunstall will be suing her former landlord. She claims she was illegally locked out of her north St. Louis city home last month. The grandmother was in tears as she told 5 On Your Side how she felt after she discovered her belongings were thrown in the backyard.
“It hurt to see your kids looking at the things outside," she said. "When they ask you where we're going to go, you just try to be strong.”
Tunstall is now being represented by Metropolitan St. Louis Equal Housing and Opportunity Council. Her attorney, Kalila Jackson, said her client’s landlord wanted her out because she kept complaining about the property’s poor condition. Tunstall said the property needed major work.
“I wanted the walls and stuff fixed. the electrical outlets are hanging out,” she said.
Tunstall's attorney said she continued to pay rent despite the property's condition, but the attorney representing her former landlord said she was not paying rent and made allegations against him in retaliation for being evicted.
In Missouri, the legal way to evict someone is through the court system. Jackson said she is working with Kennedy to get Board Bill 87 passed. Jackson said the bill will be discussed at a hearing before the board of aldermen soon. She hopes it becomes law so that police can be empowered to stop landlords from illegal evictions.